Humans have destroyed hundreds of millions of square miles of ecosystems to plant annual agriculture plants since the beginning of modern human civilization. Restoration agriculture has the potential to fundamentally change the face of agriculture by reversing this trend. Its primary goal is to provide staple food production from fully functional, perennial ecological farming systems by growing the calories, carbs, proteins, oils, and medicines we all need for well-being. This has the potential to change global ecological health and re-vegetate the planet, one farm at a time.
Restoration agriculture isn’t about restoring ‘historical’ plant species but instead presents an opportunity to farm in nature’s image while producing recognizable, marketable products with large, consistent markets. Restoration agriculture produces more than twice the number of edible human calories per acre as an average acre of corn. Instead of corn, beans and rice, restoration agriculture offers a different spectrum of choices: tree fruit, nuts, berries, juice beverages, nut ‘milk’ and grass –fed animal products.
Restoration agriculture: What are the benefits?
Some of the benefits of restoration agriculture based on perennials and woody plants:
Abundance of food
Increased depth and fertility of topsoil
Only planted once – systems can last 1000’s of years
Remove C02 from the atmosphere (sequester carbon)
Reduce or eliminate soil erosion
Reduce seasonal flooding
Provide wildlife habitat
Provide habitat for pest eating organisms
Restoration agriculture: How does it work?
Restoration agriculture closely mimics the terrestrial savanna biome, a community of flora and fauna that provides the greatest variety of species usable as food for human beings. This ‘brushland’ is a rich, luxuriant grassland punctuated by drifts of brush, fruits, nuts and berries.
The first way restoration agriculture mimics the savanna is in its vertical structure and spatial distribution.The vertical layers are:
Emergent layer – exceptionally tall trees
Canopy layer-uppermost layer of foliage
Understory layer-just beneath canopy
Shrub layer-sun loving to south and shade tolerant to north
Groundcover-most shade tolerant
The second way restoration agriculture imitates the savanna is in species mix but the restoration agriculture system substitutes cultivated, domesticated plants bred to produce high crop yields year after year.
OAK SAVANNA PLANTS (tallest to shortest)CHARACTERISTICS
Fagaceae family(oak, chestnut, beech)Tall, nut-bearing trees
Malus(apples)Medium, fruit-bearing trees
Corylus(hazelnuts)Spreading nut-producing shrub
Prunus(cherries, plums, peaches)Various different forms from tall trees to suckering shrubs
Rubus(raspberries, blackberries)Cane fruit that move into grasslands
Ribes(gooseberries, currants)Shade-tolerant small shrubs
Fungi (mushrooms)Colonizing dead wood, leaves, or other biomassShade-tolerant, moisture-loving
Poaceae family(grasses)Primary food for grazing animals
The third way restoration agriculture imitates the savanna is in its livestock usage. The savanna biome used to support members of the family Elephantidae who provided the natural disturbance cycles needed to maintain the savanna as an open woodland/bushy prairie. Cows, goats, sheep, pigs and poultry are all domesticated savanna species and this diverse polyculture of animal species is an incredibly useful tool for managing the perennial polyculture systems of restoration agriculture. (They are not absolutely necessary though as similar services can be provided with machines if the situation warrants.) Properly managed, these animals provide weed control, soil fertility, pest control, disease management, additional income and food.
Animal polycultures in restoration agriculture are managed by a carefully designed leader-follower, mob-stock, silvopasture (the intentional combination of livestock production and wood plants) grazing system. This works by allowing one animal type into a paddock first and once it has eaten its preferred foods in the first paddock, it is rotated to the next paddock. Then, the next type of animal is allowed into the first paddock and the cycle continues. The pasture is allowed ample recovery time before the original grazing animal returns to the initial paddock.
An ideal leader follow system would look something like this:
Cattle: Young calves first to take the most nutritious grass, then cows.
Hogs: Broadly omnivorous and will learn how to graze rather than plow if ringed.
Turkeys: Prefer to eat bugs, insects and large seeds.
Sheep: Once pasture starts to sprout biennials and perennials, sheep will graze on these. Provide excellent long term weed control.
Chickens: Scratch up remaining manure while searching for insects and seeds.
Geese: Similar to sheep in grazing habits.
Restoration agriculture: What growing systems does it use?
Restoration agriculture uses several techniques that are used in the branch of agriculture called ‘Agroforestry’.
Alley Cropping: Growing of a row of trees or shrubs in between annual crop fields
Silvopasture: This is the intentional combination of trees / shrubs with livestock and forage production. In restoration agriculture, quality pasture is key because it drives the health of the entire system. The trees, forage and livestock are managed as one system and none of the three is allowed to negatively impact the other. A well designed system can increase forage yields, allowing the grass to turn green earlier in the spring and stay green later in the fall.
Forest Farming: This is the intentional manipulation of the forest canopy and ground layer to replace an economically unproductive understory with an economically valuable, shade tolerant crop. Forest farming occurs in a closed-canopy or near closed canopy forest where shade is more than 60%, and medicinal herbs and mushrooms thrive.
Restoration agriculture: How is water managed?
Water is the absolute, number one plant nutrient so the relationship between the land and the water must be optimized. When required, this is achieved through a ‘keyline system’ which uses water harvesting ditches (swales), soft earthen mounds located downslope (berms) and subsoiling. Water use is optimized because this system:
“…uses all available strategies to capture every last raindrop that hits the farm, slow each raindrop down in the landscape, spread them out toward the ridges where they are needed so they can soak in, and store excess in the soil, ponds, tanks and ultimately the living tissues of increased plant and animal yields.”
The keyline system converts pale-coloured subsoils into vital, living topsoil much faster than it would happen naturally. Water and air and soil life convert the formerly compacted, lifeless subsoil into rich, fertile topsoil which leads to increased productivity.
Restoration agriculture: How are plants chosen?
One of the foundational requirements in restoration agriculture is to have plants that produce large crops every single season, beginning early in their lives. This is achieved through ‘mass selection’ where, for example, 1,000 apple seeds may need to be planted to get one good variety. (A nursery bed as small as 4’x8’ can hold 1,000 tree seedlings!) This provides an opportunity to discover new plant varieties that bear fruit or seed within a few years – a trait called precociousness.
Additionally, varieties will be created that are naturally pest and disease resistant, adapted to local soil types, rainfall patterns, summertime heat, wintertime cold/wet, etc. Once it is determined what survives effortlessly on a particular site, those genetics and patterns are replicated.
Restoration agriculture: How are pests and diseases managed?
Restoration agriculture is an attempt to work in harmony with ecological laws; there are several ecological realities that are activated that assist with pest and disease cycles.
Diversity: The deep diversity in a restoration agriculture planting ensures that no one pest or disease will wipe out the entire crop.
Population ecology: Beneficial insects and secondary pest diseases only appear when there are enough pests to feed them.
Balance: Through the years the control mechanisms come into play and eventually a balance is reached.
Restoration agriculture: What is STUN?
In order for restoration agriculture farming to be profitable while producing staple food commodities from woody plants, the farmer needs to approach (but not totally utilize) the STUN technique. STUN stands for strategic, total and utter neglect. The premise is, the less done to a tree, the less the harvested product costs to grow and the more profitable the restoration agriculture farm. This goes back to the technique of ‘mass selection’; in order to have trees that thrive with no inputs, they have to be found.
A restoration agriculture farmers’ question should be: “What can I not do to my trees and get away with it?” That stated, trees do need to be cared for in the first 2-5 years with weed control, minimal soil amendments and water.
Restoration Agriculture: What is the big picture?
Rural dwellers in North America have the management authority over hundreds of millions of acres. Thus, they have the ability to create broad-scale ecological change by enacting the restoration agriculture process and:
creating cleaner rivers, lakes and streams, mitigating the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay
creating the conditions needed for seafood and freshwater fish to become more abundant and healthier
creating places where wild pollinators and migratory insect-eating birds can thrive.
Info and work credit by: Mark Shephard, Restoration Agriculture Development, RAD Pioneers,
link to resource: http://radpioneers.com/what-is-restoration-agriculture/